If you like your Americana to pack a serious punch then step into the ring and go a few rounds with Haint Blue. The Baltimore-based seven-piece, headed by vocalist Mike Cohn, have just released Overgrown, an epic storybook LP that has been ten years in the making. The songs are woven from Cohn’s time spent in the grip of a rigid fundamentalist faith, with which he ultimately cut ties. The songs deal in turn with the wrench of this emancipation; the loss of faith and friendship and the struggle with depression and addiction. Told you it was heavyweight.
But before we even begin to feel the heft of the subject matter, attention ought to be given solely to the sonic achievement Overgrown represents. It’s not often that essentially acoustic music like this is so very in-your-face. Every guitar strum can be viscerally felt; the vocals (recorded, surely, in some remote canyon) are gargantuan and the drums pound but, amazingly, everything else - banjo, mandolin, fiddle and piano - still manages to find its own space.
The ominous attitude of opener ‘Another Year’ sets out the stall, the band coming across like Blue October during a power cut. At the song’s giant climax, the full-throated howl of Cohn owes a debt to both Justin Furstenfeld and Frames-era Glen Hansard and is easily as stirring as both. The song’s abrupt ending leaves no space for indulging the cacophony any longer than necessary and is followed by the six-eight of ‘Sins Laid Bare’ which, while lighter, is nevertheless the musical equivalent of giant emotional waves crashing on the shore.
Sixty Years Of It’ is a philosophical look back at the people Cohn left behind in his past life and features a beautifully melodic mandolin line, weaving along with the vocal. The lyric is oblique enough for the song to be universally applicable but should you wish to drill down, you don’t even need to look inside the artwork as the album’s lyrics are the sleeve.
The yearning violin and gospel bvs of ‘Wasted My Day’ are swept aside by the Cajun shuffle of ‘Mama, God’ during which the banjo and fiddle are permitted what I would refer to as a ‘freedom to noodle’ pass. This will be too much for some but provides some useful respite before the haunting ‘2/10’, which deals frankly with drug rehabilitation. It’s a stark reminder that beating addiction is a journey you can only really take alone, however much you want to take people with you. If that weren’t enough, ‘Bear the Burden’ deals with abortion and religion in a similarly direct way. Still, there is positivity in the stomp and whip of ‘Get Out of the City’ and humour in sludgy closing number ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’ to balance things out… well, sort of.
Overgrown is really a record of the American experience from the inside. In a country so wide and diverse in its range of peoples and philosophies it’s easy for the outsider to imagine it to be a place of possibilities and freedom. The reality is that doctrines and dogma - along with trouble of course - tend to geographically cluster and getting yourself out of a bad place (metaphorically and literally) can be a huge effort of will and determination. Striving for change and effecting that change are two different things; and Overgrown, in its way, is a musical testament to those with enough strength and spirit to do both.
Review by Rich Barnard.